****Grab a Snake by the Tail

By Leonardo Padura, translated by Peter Bush — For decades, glimpses into Cuban life were hard to come by, and for Americans will be harder to come by again with renewed travel restrictions. English-language crime fiction about contemporary Cuba, written by Cubans, also has been sparse, despite reader curiosity about a tropical culture with such a heady mix of Caribbean, Spanish, African, and Indian influences.

Leonardo Padura, whom the book jacket calls “Cuba’s most celebrated living author,” is the author of the Havana Quartet, crime novels that in their English versions each have a color in the title: Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Black. Spanish-language television films were created from them, and they appeared on Netflix with English subtitles as Four Seasons in Havana. This police procedural follows the protagonist of those popular earlier works, police inspector Mario Conde, as he reminisces about a murder investigation from 30 years ago in Havana’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown).

Cuba’s significant Chinese community immigrated to the island under contracts that amounted to slave labor, and which led to the atmosphere of loneliness, contempt, and uprooting that forms the backdrop to the narrative and sets the stage for murder. Even in a culture where diverse racial and ethnic identities are a commonplace, the dirty, poverty-ridden Barrio Chino is considered mysterious and alien to most Havana residents.

Conde is persuaded to look into the murder by a beautiful African-Chinese police lieutenant Patricia Chion, about whom Conde has impure thoughts. Patricia tells him to engage her father, Juan, as his guide through the barrio’s labyrinthine streets and cultural ways. That’s because, as Conde says, “There were complications, as there almost always are in situations involving a chino.” (So evocative of the last line of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”)

Patricia explains that the dead man, Pedro Cuang, was a friend of her godfather and an acquaintance of her father, even though her father denies knowing him. That would be one of the complications.

Cuang was a retired dry cleaner, no family, living alone on a pension in a dingy one-room apartment. Conde visits that apartment, where the corpse has yet to be removed. He and his sergeant Manuel Palacios see the 73-year-old has been hanged, with a couple of peculiar flourishes: a severed index finger and a circle with two crossed arrows inside carved on his chest.

Crime was rampant in the Barrio Chino, but what Cuang’s link to it may have been is murky. As is the meaning of the strange symbols. In Havana, there are lots of possibilities: a Congolese practice called nganga, Yoruba santaria, voodoo, or some heretofore unknown Chinese witchcraft. Investigating these possibilities and their practitioners gives Padura an excuse to delve into them a bit. These interesting diversions into cultural anthropology aren’t distractions from the main thrust of the story. It needs them to move forward.

Grab a Snake by the Tail is short book that employs a somewhat literary style, appropriate for a cop who wants to be a writer. The translation seems good – you aren’t frequently reminded of it, at least. The characters, especially Conde, his aide Manuel, and his unofficial deputy, Juan Chion, engage in lively interplay. There’s some sex. You never have the sense detective Conde is in any serious, thriller-style danger. It’s more that you’re following him around a fascinating town trying to avoid the complications—criminal, female and cultural.

Photo: dimitrisvetsikas1969 from Pixabay.

Big Screen Music: A Tuba to Cuba

Two supremely entertaining documentaries in theaters now on the power of music and dedication of musicians. Yesterday, Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace, which we had to wait almost a half-century to see on screen.

A Tuba to Cuba

Unbelievably, two movies in the space of two weeks have featured a tuba (see review of A Woman at War), but coincidence has struck gold. A Tuba to Cuba tells the story of a two-week Cuban adventure by members of New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band who in 2015 traveled there for a series of concerts, get-acquainted sessions, and impromptu events. The documentary was directed by T.G. Herrington and Danny Clinch (trailer).

The band members of all ages find much musical commonality with their Cuban brethren, which they trace back to African influence, and they delight in their discoveries and in each other. Each member of the current band on the trip has a chance to shine as both performer and person.

Leader of the goodwill expedition is Ben Jaffe, whose parents, Allan and Sandra Jaffe,  moved to New Orleans in the early 1960s, loved the music, and feared it was being lost. His father played the tuba, and started the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, for which the entire nation owes him profound gratitude.

The scenes around Havana, as well as several other towns, show the expected 1960s American cars and colorful houses, and a gorgeous concert hall in their final stop. But above and beyond the physical surroundings, the people—especially some jazz-loving young Cuban musicians—are terrific. The trip inspired the later PHJB album So It Is.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 100%; audiences 82%.

****Ghosts of Havana

havana, Cuba

photo: Les Haines, creative commons license

By Todd Moss – The long tail of the 1961 U.S. Bay of Pigs invasion  disaster swings around to sting a married couple in this fast-paced political thriller—third in a series by former U.S. State Department diplomat Todd Moss.

With his insider’s background, Moss believably portrays the interdepartmental rivalries inside the Washington Beltway, where high-stakes diplomacy faces off against the less, shall we say, conventional means of asserting American interests deployed by the rival Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Moss’s protagonist, in these novels, is former Amherst College professor Judd Ryker. He developed a political theory suggesting that, in times of a country’s destabilization—whether because of natural calamity or military coup or political upheaval—quick U.S. intervention can help mold the new status quo to fit American interests. He’s been brought into the State Department to create a one-man Crisis Reaction Unit. In other words, to put his theory to the test. Not surprisingly, the State Department’s career diplomats are not interested in this outsider’s theories, and do all they can, by foot-dragging and outright sabotage, to assure he fails.

Judd’s wife Jessica has what he has been led to believe is a job in international relief efforts. As this book opens, she has just revealed that she works for the CIA. In fact, she heads a super-secret unit that operates with total independence and is available for various tricky problem-solving tasks around the world.

Now that Jessica’s responsibilities are out in the open, the couple has agreed on three fundamentals going forward: they will assist each other whenever possible; they will avoid working on the same problem whenever they can; and they will admit to each other when a situation arises that they cannot follow through with assist or avoid. Relevant to all three of these is a commitment to always tell each other the truth, even though at times they may need to keep their employers’ secrets. Like so many principles, stating them turns out to be easier than living them.

Within three days, Jessica counts up at least eight lies she’s told Judd already. Yet, at the same time, he’s reassuring her that he’s in his State Department office, when he’s actually headed to Gauntánamo Bay Naval Base to meet with the shadowy director of Cuban intelligence.

Cuba’s top leaders are elderly. Sick too. There’s every reason to believe that a moment of disruption—of the kind Judd believes is ripe for positive intervention—is imminent. His trip to Cuba is the first step, though the stated reason for the meeting is to extricate four Americans caught on a fishing boat in Cuban waters.

Moss gives a sharp, up-to-the-minute feel in terms of crazy politics, self-serving politicos, and mainstream diplomatic strategists trying to keep the lid on. Throughout, he does a great job in showing the discrepancy between the way events are played for the public and the reality of the situation as Judd and Jessica perceive it. It’s enough to make you look at the nightly news with an even more skeptical eye!